Exclusionary Play

"Abigail is such a pest!" exclaims my daughter, Molly, as she approaches me from behind and begins to rub her hands back and forth across the two day old stubble on my chin. We are on vacation at a family camp. I am in a lawn chair, enjoying a relaxed conversation with other parents while our children are off playing together, happily, I thought. Abigail is the younger sister of Shamus, the boy Molly has attached herself to since the day we got here. Apparently, while the adults have been kicking back, trouble has been brewing amongst the children. "She won't leave Shamus and I alone. We keep telling her to go away. And she keeps following us. And all she does is whine. And now she says Shamus and I can't ride bikes together 'cause she won't let Shamus use her bike and Shamus' bike has a flat."

"Why doesn't Abigail play with someone else?" I ask, hoping for an easy solution. "I told her to go play with Melissa, but she won't," Molly replies. Then her face takes on a mischievous grin. "So you know what we did?" she excitedly reports. "Shamus and I pretended that Abigail wasn't there. Like she was invisible. When she talked we just said, 'I don't hear anything, do you?' And when she touched us we said, 'Oh, what's that funny feeling on my skin!' Then she started throwing rocks at us. So we ditched her. Now she's crying, but she won't stop following us."

Nope, this was not an easy fix. With great reluctance I heaved myself up from that wonderful lawn chair and resigned myself to the call to parent. I felt bad for Abigail. I remember when two girls in my neighborhood would exclude me from their play. I used to look out my window at the house across the street and imagine all the fun they were having in there without me. But I also remember feeling disgusted at what a pest my little brother could be in front of my friends.

"Molly," I began as we walked slowly toward where the other kids were, "Did you know that you can actually drive someone crazy by pretending they don't exist? Not right away of course, but if everybody at this camp picked one person and we all completely ignored that person, it could happen. If no one talks to you or looks at you or hears you, then you start to do crazier and crazier things to try to get someone's attention. That's probably why Abigail started throwing rocks."

"But why can't Abigail get attention from somebody else" Molly protested.

"Well that's probably the best solution. But the funny thing is that when kids get rejected they often feel desperate to get attention from whoever rejected them. The more you and Shamus reject Abigail, the more desperate she probably feels about playing with you." Molly seemed to understand this, so I added for my own amusement, "Oddly enough, it tends to work that way among adults too."

"So what can we do to get her to leave us alone?" Molly implored, unsatisfied with my ruminations on human nature. This is a hard situation. I felt challenged to come up with a solution. I wondered how we adults could expect kids to be able to work something like this out. When I was a kid we were left on our own to deal with our peers. Cruelty was a common result. Molly needed answers. Abigail needed help.

"Let's see," I began, "you could tell Abigail some things you like about her so that she won't think your desire to play with Shamus alone means that she is not worth playing with. And, you could think of something you wouldn't mind playing with Abigail and promise to do that with her later. And, you could help her find someone else to play with."

"Will you play with her?" Molly asked. I felt like I did when I made lemonade one day for Molly's juice stand and then she charged me fifty cents to drink a dixie cup of my own lemonade.

"No," I explained, "that's not really my job. But let's go find Abigail's mom and let her know that Abigail needs some help making friends with some of the other kids."

© 2008 Tim Hartnett

Other Father Issues, Books

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Parents are the bones on which children sharpen their teeth. - Peter Ustinov

Tim Hartnett, MFT is father to Molly at their home in Santa Cruz, CA. Tim also works part time as a writer, psychotherapist and men's group leader. If you have any feedback, or would like to receive the monthly column, "Daddyman Speaks" by Tim Hartnett regularly via email, (free and confidential) send your name and email address to E-Mail Tim Hartnett, 911 Center St. Suite "C", Santa Cruz, CA 95060, 831.464.2922 voice & fax.

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